While parties in Lebanon and the government of Syria celebrated a plan for pumping Egyptian gas to Lebanon, depicting it as a victory against their imperial enemies, first and foremost America, the plan was in fact American, designed as a “crisis management” measure to help mitigate the effects of a free-falling Lebanon.
Controlled by a militia whose endless regional wars have killed economic growth, Lebanon has run out of foreign currency, and therefore its imports of basic staples — including fuel — have dwindled to a crisis-inducing level.
Without fuel, electric-power cuts have become endemic. Lebanese households now receive about two hours of electricity a day, thus increasing their reliance on small, private power generators. But these too have to find “fresh dollars” to buy diesel, while their customers settle their bills in the ever-devaluating national currency. Both dollars and diesel have become scarce.
Electricity cuts and diesel scarcity now threaten the work of important sectors of the economy, including healthcare. The American University of Beirut, whose hospital has been operating without interruption since 1860, in August issued a dire statement begging for help. The hospital said that without either uninterrupted state electricity or diesel, it would have to shut down vital medical equipment, which would cause the death — within days — of around 100 patients.
It was perhaps this plea that prompted the US embassy in Beirut to work on a plan involving importing gas from Egypt and electricity produced in Jordan with Egyptian gas, in order to avoid impending disaster. Ambassador Dorothy Shea called president Michel Aoun to tell him that her country had a plan, and Aoun boasted that the electricity crisis was soon coming to an end.
While details are still scant, the plan’s basic outline is to revive the “Arab Pipeline” that saw Egypt pump gas to Lebanon through Jordan between 2008 and 2010. According to former prime minister Fouad Siniora, Syria received the Egyptian gas in the south, and supplied Lebanon from its reserves in the north. Of the dozen power plants in Lebanon, only three of them are powered by gas. All are in the northern town of Deir Ammar and can produce a total of 435 megawatts of power.
Shea also said that Washington would facilitate payments to Cairo, on behalf of Beirut, using World Bank assistance funds budgeted for Lebanon. On average, producing one gas-powered megawatt of electricity costs $50 an hour. If Deir Ammar plants operated on a 24-hour basis, Lebanon’s gas bill from Egypt will come up to roughly $200 million a year.
But 435 MW barely cover Lebanon’s electricity needs. Peak demand is estimated at over 3,000 MW. Deir Ammar will therefore cover only 15 percent of Lebanon’s needs, or the equivalent of three-and-a-half hours of electric supply a day, hardly a victory for the country’s ruler, Hezbollah, or its protege, Aoun. But then, better than that tanker full of Iranian fuel supposedly headed ultimately for Lebanese power plants — and how long would that oil last? — so a double whammy against Hezbollah.
If the plan pans out, Lebanon will produce electricity for the needs of vital sectors, such as hospitals. Second in line will be public facilities, like the airport. Lastly, households might get an extra hour or two of power to the two they now receive. The Lebanese will keep suffering because of electricity cuts, but the US embassy would have at least avoided the shutdown of hospitals.
The American plan for Lebanon’s electricity still faces several hurdles. To start with, the gas has to go through Syria, which gives the Syrian government a say in the whole process. Plans for Jordanian-produced electricity seems now to have been dialed down. But that electricity would also have had to transit through Syria. The reason it is now only a “future” possibility, as the Lebanese energy minister put it, is because the grid in Syria needs repair.
Syria, however, is under US sanctions imposed on the Bashar Al-Assad regime. This means that the US plan requires the White House to file a waiver with Congress to suspend parts of the sanctions-imposing Caesar Act. In his recent visit to Beirut, Senator Chris Van Hollen said he and a number of his colleagues were working on ways to allow the Egyptian gas to pass through Syria.
Syrian officials have so far expressed their willingness to facilitate the US plan, even if Damascus does not get a cut. The plan, after all, gives Al-Assad the regional and global recognition he has been desperate for. Once the pipes start pumping, the world will have a vested interest in keeping Al-Assad in place. Over the past half century, the regime has perfected the art of “being useful” to global powers, expecting favors in return.
For helping Lebanon with its electricity crisis, Washington will have to grant Al-Assad some recognition and attention, a price the Biden administration seems willing to pay. The American plan will only marginally improve Lebanon’s electricity situation. How much it benefits Al-Assad is immeasurable.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, in Washington, DC.